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2024 Stanley Cup Champions

How the Stanley Cup Champion Florida Panthers Were Built

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Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice gets doused in the locker room celebration following the team’s Stanley Cup victory in Game 7 on Monday night in Sunrise. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Florida general manager Bill Zito has made sure credit his predecessor for the success of this franchise and how it was built. Even though Dale Tallon was not on the ice when the Panthers celebrated with the Stanley Cup late Monday night, a number of his guys were.

Tallon, after all, drafted two of core pieces of the Panthers in Sasha Barkov and Aaron Ekblad.

He also signed Sergei Bobrovsky, drafted Spencer Knight, and traded for Eetu Luostarinen.

Those are the only five players on the 27-man playoff roster left from when Zito took over.

The roster overhaul is all Zito — and the success of the Panthers is a case study in how a team can be retooled without being broken down.

In fact, despite all of the changes Florida made since Zito took over in 2020, the team not only did not take a downturn, but improved every year.

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Barkov, the best defensive forward in the game, being the player Zito built around certainly helped.

This current team has been built on a combination of trades, free agent pickups, two draft picks, and a couple of waiver finds.

But it was started with Zito’s first year behind the wheel.

Working out of a hotel in Coconut Creek after being hired from Columbus during the pandemic, Zito quickly got to work trying to put his mark on the Panthers.

The 2019-20 season was supposed to be a big step forward for the Panthers, but, it ended up costing Tallon his job as the team sagged coming out of the All-Star break and, when the season resumed following the Covid shutdown, was booted from the Toronto bubble without much of a fight.

Two weeks in, Zito pulled off a big trade: Florida sent Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour to Pittsburgh for Patric Hornqvist.

It was a gutsy move; Hornqvist was certainly on the backend of his career, but he was the perfect player — a ‘warrior’ type — that Zito felt Florida was missing.

To further add toughness, Florida signed Radko Gudas as a free agent.

Using his money wisely, Zito signed Carter Verhaeghe on a cheap two-year deal, while also signing a bought-out Alex Wennberg and Anthony Duclair.

Florida ended up second in the Covid Central in 2021 after trading for Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champion Lightning.

Things were on the uptick.

In his second offseason, Zito pulled off another big trade — this time getting Sam Reinhart from Buffalo — during the draft.

Florida extended Verhaeghe and Duclair, signed Joe Thornton and Colin White.

Despite seeing coach Joel Quenneville be forced to resign after an 8-0 start, the Panthers rolled throughout the 2021-22 season, winning the NHL Presidents’ Trophy for the first time.

Florida won its first playoff round since 1996, but were swept out of the playoffs by Tampa Bay in the second round.

More changes came in the hiring of Paul Maurice as coach.

The biggest move, of course, came after free agency was over.

With Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar up for big extensions, Zito pulled off a blockbuster deal when Matthew Tkachuk told the Flames he would not sign a long-term deal with them — and would only agree to be traded to three teams.

Florida was one of them.

Zito loaded up Florida’s bid and simply overpowered what Carolina and St. Louis was offering and got his guy.

It has worked out famously.

This past summer, after the Panthers lost in 5 to the Vegas Golden Knights, Florida lost Gudas to free agency, traded Duclair, and added a newly-retired Hornqvist to its front office.

Those players, Maurice said, are still missed — and were mentioned during Monday’s Stanley Cup celebration.

But Florida has kept on ticking. Obviously.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Niko Mikkola were added over the summer. Uvis Balinskis, who will see an increased role next season, was discovered in the Czech League.

Evan Rodrigues was signed with the money moved in the Duclair trade for Steven Lorentz. Anthony Stolarz was signed to replace 2022-23 backup goalie Alex Lyon.

Kyle Okposo and Vladimir Tarasenko were acquired at the deadline.

Every move seemed to work.

And every one of them, today, is a Stanley Cup champion.

For More FHN Coverage of the Stanley Cup Champion Florida Panthers:

UP NEXT FOR THE FLORIDA PANTHERS
  • Stanley Cup Championship Parade, Fort Lauderdale: Sunday, 11 a.m.
  • NHL Draft, Las Vegas: Friday-Saturday
  • NHL Free Agency: Monday
  • Florida Panthers Development Camp, Fort Lauderdale: Early July
  • Florida Panthers Training Camp, Fort Lauderdale: Mid-September
  • Florida Panthers Preseason: Sept. 22-Oct. 5
  • Florida Panthers Opening Night/Banner Unveiling: TBA

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